Responding With Purpose

As the year draws to a close, we have the opportunity to reflect on our personal and professional lives with an eye toward resolutions for the coming year. We have faced many challenges, with many more to come. But rather than being buffeted by forces beyond our control, we are thinking and acting strategically, positioning ourselves to respond to change in ways that, while sometimes unfamiliar, will keep us true to our mission and advance inclusive excellence.

We have many accomplishments to celebrate. At the beginning of the spring term, we were faced with daunting institutional challenges from our regional accreditors, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, regarding diversity, graduate programs, and the library. They praised us for our good intentions, but also charged us with insufficient action and accountability. Our community has responded with purpose, commitment, and measurable progress. Among other actions taken, we have developed a building program for the library and are currently soliciting proposals from potential architects. We have joined the National Council of Graduate Schools, made substantive progress toward developing a common graduate student handbook, expanded selected Graduate Council meetings to include program directors, formalized inclusion of graduate programs into our program review process, and advanced a proposal requiring the digitization of all theses and dissertations.

In the area of diversity, we began with a pathway to inclusion that charted the many different experiences of people at Saint Mary's, and pointed to the need for both a vision and series of steps toward building inclusive excellence. The College Committee on Inclusive Excellence developed a guiding vision statement, advanced an "Educational Case Statement" that presents the Committee's work solidly within our Catholic mission, sponsored book discussion groups that focused on power and privilege, developed guidelines for responding to acts of intolerance, participated in pilot workshops for the campus, and launched an inclusive community initiative funding process. The December 5 open meeting for the campus was a true demonstration of the broad interest in and support of the work of the Committee, which has not only established a framework and direction for achieving inclusive excellence, but has also begun engaging in the tasks which will move us forward.

At that December 5 meeting, the CCIE also presented some general information about our Climate Survey results. As I noted for the staff in August, one of the biggest areas of dissatisfaction is the amount of collaboration between offices. We simply must learn new and better ways to work together if we are to weather the current economic storm and retain what is best about Saint Mary's College.

Collaboration will also be important as we continue discussions of the Core Curriculum. At the last Senate meeting of the term, Senators expressed clear concern about the limited faculty support for the materials presented by the Core Curriculum Task Force. After listening to many of the faculty comments in meetings and open forums, I remain convinced that there is much common ground yet to be articulated, and which will emerge as faculty become more familiar with the assumptions and learning goals that guide each of the models. The discussions are important and timely, and the concern of the Senators speaks to their dedication as true representatives of the faculty. At the same time, our work on the Core will help us clearly assert the "SMC advantage" as residing in the quality of the student experience, one of both a rigorous education that cultivates critical, creative, and independent thought through primary reading, conversation, collaboration, and engaged learning, and an education which encourages the spiritual journey that gives meaning and purpose to life.

One common concern arising from the CCTF models is the potential cost of creating and supporting a new curriculum. How can we embark on something new and potentially expensive in a time of such great economic uncertainty? We have no choice; now, more than ever, we need to make the changes that will ensure our competitive advantage, reputation, and academic excellence well into the future.

Economic uncertainty is clearly at the center of recent conversations on campus and across the country. In his message last week, Brother Ron reported that our early applications for the undergraduate class of 2013 are 20% lower than anticipated, and that we are in the process of developing budget scenarios based on 5, 10, and 15 percent reductions. Some recent economic forecasts suggest that we are perhaps years away from recovery. We can act in perpetual reaction, making across-the-board reductions each quarter and staving off tougher decisions, but we do so at the risk of losing momentum on key initiatives, compromising our competitive advantages, missing opportunities, and disproportionately hurting programs that are already lean or vulnerable. We must take the more careful and strategic path of staking out a longer-term strategy based on substantially reduced tuition revenue, a smaller undergraduate student body, and moderate growth in targeted graduate programs. Over the next several weeks, we will be looking at ways to consolidate services. Our pace of ranked faculty hiring will slow. Positions that are vacated will not automatically be renewed, but will be weighed against competing institutional needs. We will need to lower our expectations about salary increases and the availability of course reassignments. We will continue to refine our processes for prioritizing facilities and technology projects to improve our efficiency and communication.

At the same time, we will continue to build our capacity for inclusive excellence. As some existing projects come to natural closure, resources will be freed for additional faculty and course development. As our reliance on lecturers decreases, ranked faculty will have increased opportunity to participate in and reenergize Collegiate Seminar. As we gain more understanding about how to serve the diverse needs of our students, we will improve retention. As summer session becomes a regular and expected part of our academic offerings, we will improve the graduation rate of students and generate more revenue. As we focus on collaborative learning in our programs and facilities, we will advance our mission and improve our competitiveness. And as our marketing and fundraising efforts bring increased attention to the quality of our academic programs, applications will increase, giving us the opportunity to refine our admissions processes to better predict which students are likely to succeed at SMC.

I am regularly reminded about the special nature of our community and the wonderful hearts and spirits of those with whom I work. The year ahead may be lean in fiscal resources, but I know we are rich in energy, talent, commitment and momentum. We will find the best in ourselves, so that we may inspire the best in our students.

May you find much peace, joy, and fulfillment in the coming year.